I love reading about the White Sox from various sources and contributors like myself on other blogs. Often, I find inspiration for writing articles from people’s opinions that I don’t agree with. That’s how sports talk should be anyway: two or more people debating their opinions. This article of mine is no different.
Last Wednesday, I found an article expressing the need for “cautious optimism” when thinking about the White Sox rebuild. While I do agree with this point, to an extent, much of the rest of the article is what I disagreed with. The writer cited the Phillies and the Reds as the two main reasons for why the White Sox need to be careful, as these are examples of failed/failing rebuilds (The article can be found here).
In my article, I strictly oppose this point and look into how the White Sox have paved their own way to success, and that, while success isn’t guaranteed, there isn’t any reason you shouldn’t be confident in the way the White Sox rebuilt (whether or not the results are there).
What the Phillies and Reds Did Incorrectly, and What the Sox Did Right
Let’s start with the Phillies and flash back to 2014. The Phillies were in last place in the NL East with a 36-46 record. It was time for management to consider their options, including rebuilding. Certainly, you could say it was time to do that, as the core of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins were 34, 35, and 35 years old, respectively. However, Ruben Amaro, Jr. was still their GM, and he had this to say about rebuilding:
“I can’t blow this team up for five years and expect us to be (bad) for the next five or six years. I don’t think that’s the right way to go about our franchise. Our fans, our organization, I think we owe it to a lot of people, if we do have to go into a transition, it’s going to be a shorter one than that.”
So, the Phillies stayed “mired in mediocrity” and finished the season 73-89, dead last in the NL East.
When it finally became time to give up and blow up the team, the Phillies made 4 major trades involving Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels and Jake Diekman, Ken Giles, and Johnathan Papelbon. In total, the Phillies received 13 players through these trades. Only 6 have made it to the majors (Jorge Alfaro, Nick Williams, Jerad Eickhoff, Jake Thompson, Vince Velazquez, and Zach Eflin). Of the prospects they received, only 4 were ever ranked in either MLB Pipeline or Baseball America as a top 100 prospect, none higher than Nick Williams (#27 Baseball America, #64 MLB Pipeline; clearly, they were torn on his talent level). They are now 2-3 years into the rebuild and haven’t seen the results they would’ve liked by this point, especially considering Amaro’s opposition to being bad for 5-6 years.
What did the Phillies do wrong? They waited too long to trade players who were already past their primes and closer to a coaching role than a full-time player role. Sure, Hamels and Giles were young, but Hamels’ $144M contract prevented the Phillies from getting the highest level of talent in return, since teams would have to take on quite a portion of Hamels’ salary. In addition, trading Giles and Papelbon in separate trades made it harder for the Phillies to maximize return (SEE: Frazier, Robertson, and Kahnle trade). Simply put, the Phillies sat on their hands, “mired in mediocrity” for too long, still nostalgic from the golden years of Howard, Utley, and Rollins.
But what about the Reds? Certainly they were different, right? Cincinnati traded Johnny Cueto, Todd Frazier, Aroldis Chapman, Mat Latos, Mike Leake, and Alfredo Simon in deals to the Royals, White Sox/Dodgers, Yankees, Marlins, Giants, and Tigers, respectively. These trades netted the Reds 15 players, only 1 of which was a top 100 prospect at the time of the trade (Peraza). Brandon Finnegan, Brandon Dixon, Scott Schebler, Anthony DeScalfani, Adam Duvall, and Eugenio Suarez have all played in the majors for the Reds, with Duvall and Suarez (from the Leake and Simon trades, respectively) as the most productive players.
What did the Reds do wrong? One thing that went wrong – that you can’t control – are off the field problems. This is why we saw Aroldis Chapman – who dealt with domestic violence disputes – traded for less from the Reds to the Yankees than from the Yankees to the Cubs: at the time, he was considered a higher liability. The biggest problem for the Reds was that Cueto, Frazier, and Latos, two of which were huge assets for the Reds, were not under team-controllable contracts. Because of this, teams will be less willing to trade top prospects, especially without the guarantee the players they are trading for will be around long-term (as an example, Cueto quickly turned around and signed with the Giants, even though he helped the Royals win the World Series). If you, like the author of the original article, consider the Frazier trade to have netted you the best prospects in return, then you have to argue that the Reds did not rebuild well, because we’ve seen what it takes to get high-quality talent for Frazier.
The Reds are clearly a team in transition, but whether or not you can actually call their process a true rebuild isn’t clear. It’s going to be hard to convince me this was a true rebuild, considering they didn’t trade their best player: Joey Votto.
See, the White Sox didn’t just trade guys who were past their prime in an attempt to cut salary and pass it off as a “rebuild”; rather, Rick Hahn started by trading our best 3 players in Sale, Quintana, and Eaton, who were all in their prime (all 28 years old) and under team-friendly contracts. The more perks you give a team (In their prime? Check. Team-controllable? Check.), the larger of a return you should expect to receive. This is why the Sox received the likes of Moncada, Giolito, and Kopech, who were all at one point or another top 5 prospects, either in the organization, among all prospects, or both.
Cautious Optimism? Yes, but for different reasons
See, here’s the thing: the White Sox DID in fact learn from the remains of “crippled rebuilds,” because they didn’t make the same mistakes as teams like the Phillies and Reds did. They followed the path of the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs – the path of proven success – while creating their rebuild. Is cautious optimism still in order? Of course, even the Cubs and Astros had to preach that to their fans and front office. Here’s the problem: you can’t compare the White Sox’s rebuild to the failed ones, for the several reasons that I’ve already listed. If everything comes crashing down horribly and this rebuild fails, you can’t blame the process the White Sox laid out, while you could make an argument for the front office failures of the Phillies and Reds.
But what about Phase 2? Worried the Sox won’t make the free agent splash in 2018, even after Rick Hahn said:
“The 2018 and 2019 free-agent classes are stacked. A number of players will command nine-figure contracts. There’s nothing magical about the $68 million threshold. And we know spending is the final piece of all this. When we get there, we expect the resources to be there.’’
That’s fine, you have every right to be skeptical. These top free agents will be in high demand, and we can’t expect Rick Hahn to go out and sign everyone of them and throw away the future. The key is to supplement the prospects and sign a few pieces to finish things up. Sound familiar? Of course, it’s re-tooling with much, much better talent and far fewer holes to fill.
My job here is to inform the reader, but if you asked me to place a bet with you, I’m going all in on this rebuild: I’d place a lot of money on the White Sox following the path of the Cubs, Royals, and Astros rather than the Phillies or Reds. Why? The White Sox did it the right way. You should certainly be cautiously optimistic about factors like health and quick development, but the players the White Sox received in trades were of higher talent level than what the Reds and Phillies received.
Flops will be flops, and they certainly do exist. However, understanding the context of the rebuilds should ease some of your concerns over these next few seasons. In my mind, the only “Trail of Tears” you will see on the South Side in a few years will be filled with tears of joy.